I’ve never bought a Star, US Weekly, or OK! Magazine in my life, partially because if I’m going to pay for a magazine, it’ll be for one that’ll take me longer than 10 minutes to “read,” but more-so because it wouldn’t be worth the ridicule I would experience from the self-declared feminist and an intellectual parts of myself. I’ll reach for a Marie Claire instead. At least that one has articles. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t “read” the gossip mags when I’m at the hairdresser or the gym. I rationalize the activity by telling myself I’m doing “research,” or trying to “stay current,” or I’ve been “working hard and deserve to do something mindless.” But the reality is, reading that the rich and the famous also have cellulite and can’t hold a relationship, well, that makes me feel better about myself (remember the effects of social comparison?). Anyhow, it generally takes about 10 (OK, 20) minutes before I snap out of my ego-boost driven trance and give into my conflict around contributing to the objectification of women’s bodies or judging the latest reality star’s addiction, infidelity, political views or choice of marital partner. I scold myself for perpetuating the “dumb blonde” stereotype and backwards culture of “role models,” and try to immerse myself in whatever library book or psychology-related article I’ve schlepped along with me (clearly, my workouts aren’t what they used to be…).
But last time I “read” the tabloids, I judged the quality of Katie Perry and John Mayer’s relationship. I criticized a teen mom for…being a teen mom. I made assumptions that the Kardashian and Kanye’s relationship success thus far is based on Narcissistic fragile self-esteem. And then I judged myself for actually giving a shit. “You’re a therapist, Megan. You’re supposed to be non-judgmental! You’re supposed to be compassionate! These people are suffering! Have a little empathy!” And then I felt guilty.
So here’s the thing with judgment: It’s constructive to a certain point. We need judgment for decision-making, for partnering, for Christmas shopping (well, most people do. I wait until December 23rd and buy everyone calendars that are already 50% off…want to be on my gift list?!). We need judgment to maintain our boundaries and lead a free and responsible life. How many times have you heard “Alcohol/drugs/love interferes with judgment” or “She’s a good judge of character”? Oftentimes, when I’ve abstained from making a judgment or stating an opinion with conviction, I’ve been labelled as “weak,” “waffling,” “timid,” or “self-righteous.” And I’m a woman! We’re expected not to have opinions! Imagine a male in power declaring he could “go either way!” Imagine Obama being like, “Meh.” And, in our media-blasted society that demands “critical thinking” and offers courses like “theory of knowledge,” we’re encouraged to judge, to criticize, to be skeptical–otherwise, we might be regarded as naive or ignorant or passive.
But let’s talk semantics for a moment, here (I realize I might enjoy semantics more than the next person. I think I just like the word. Semantics…) Right then: Being critical (see def. 3) doesn’t necessarily involve being critical (see def. 1) or criticizing (again, def. 1.) Exercising judgment (see def. 2) doesn’t necessarily involve being judgmental. Are you with me? These terms get thrown around–critical thinking, sound judgment, be critical, etc., but because they sound the same, lines often blur between very different ideas.
Now, here’s where it gets really juicy. If you identify as being critical and/or judgmental (which, ironically, is a judgment in itself), there’s a good chance you’re quite critical/judgmental towards yourself. You might have high expectations for yourself or have been told you’re “your toughest critic” or “a perfectionist.” Well, just as scolding myself for being judgmental and indulging in “rubbish” (again, a judgment right there) left me feeling guilty, your self-judgments probably perpetuate self-criticism and leave you feeling anxious, guilty, ashamed, depressed, defeated, etc. SO! The lesson here? If you are able to replace some of the judgment in your day with openness, curiosity, and objective description, you will experience less of the negative feelings I just mentioned. Trust me. I didn’t come up with this stuff. Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectial Behavior Therapy, developed a number of skills for emotional regulation and unlearning those judgmental tendencies we gravitate towards. Check out this document on observing, describing, and participating–initial steps in quieting that critical voice.
Start with practising on things that aren’t you, and to which you might not have a strong emotional connection. For example, “objectively” describe the room around you, the weather outside, a neutral person in your life (I put “objectively” in quotations because I don’t believe humans are able to completely detach ourselves from biases and be “objective,” but that’s me…and a few others). As you get the hang of it, increase the difficulty. Try to describe someone you don’t really like. Try to describe your behaviour around something you might not be proud of. Try to describe your ex, the last person you argued with, a family member you don’t get along with very well. Try, all the while, to do it with openness, patience, and compassion, as this may be an unfamiliar way of interpreting a situation, and it may go against what you know or have had modelled for you by parents/partners/friends.
A few tips along the way?
1) Be curious about where your reaction is coming from. Whenever I find myself making a judgment, I immediately ask myself if it’s coming from a place of jealousy or intimidation. Generally, judgment is instinctual for me if I’m feeling those feelings, as it makes me either feel more secure or mediates the feelings of inadequacy that come from comparing myself. Knowing where your judgment is coming from can be a helpful tool in not only coming to know ourselves better, but knowing what to do next.
2) Be curious about how the object/subject of your judgment became is the way it is: For example, if it’s another person’s behaviour or appearance, wonder what their motivation might be. Try to think of a few possibilities. If it’s your behaviour or appearance, ask what purpose putting yourself down serves. Perhaps it will ensure you succeed. Perhaps it will protect you from rejection. What other ways might you interpret your situation? What would you tell a friend?
3) Practise empathy: If you are able to think of where that motivation might be coming from, have empathy for the subject of your frustration/judgment. Try to put yourself in their shoes and imagine their suffering. It’s likely that you’ve felt something similar beforehand. Acknowledge that perhaps their behaviour is coming from a place of suffering or protection, and not a place of intentional harm. Similarly, have empathy for yourself in whatever you experience.
4) Practise patience and compassion towards yourself: Oftentimes, clients make a commitment to being more self-compassionate and less judgmental, but then they judge and criticize themselves for being judgmental or critical! Remember, you’ve been in this way of life for a very long time. It will take a very long time to change! If you’re judgmental 20/20 times per day, aim for one intentionally descriptive/observational-rather-than-judgmental experience a day. If you catch yourself being judgmental, send yourself empathy and compassion, as well as congratulations for noticing, and think of a way you might have “seen it” had you practised observing/describing/openness/nonjudgment.
5) Be open to other opinions/possibilities/alternatives: As I mentioned before, personally, I don’t believe true objective interpretation is possible (and what an oxymoron “objective interpretation” is…), at least from a human being. We are products of our genetics, our upbringing, our culture, and to suggest we might be able to ignore all biases and remain “objective” is unrealistic, in my opinion. However, some people believe that objectivity is possible, and that’s just fine! Whatever works for you, right? But, while practising learning non-judgment, try to be open to the fact that other people may have a different opinion, and there may not necessarily be an “objective truth” or “right” opinion. Not to get all philosophical on you, but if we can understand that much of reality is subjective and based on interpretation, we will be more likely to understand how different interpretations/opinions are possible and valid. This can be quite difficult, especially when it comes to political or religious views, or other heated topics. Again, empathy can be helpful, here–try to take into account the person’s experiences, upbringing, culture. etc.
These are just a few suggestions in replacing some of that suffering-causing judgment in your days with warmth, compassion, patience, and understanding. Go ahead and give it a try, foreign as it may seem. You might find that, once you experience less judgment from yourself, you might care less about what others think. You might have more space for “mistakes,” and “imperfections.” Why? Because they will become experiences, rather than failures. They will become simply qualities, rather than qualities you dislike esthetically. See? Semantics ;). In the meantime, gossip mags are a great place to start practising your new skills. There. Activity rationalized!